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Author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.

China places itself at the centre of Asian divides

Japan may have created the impression of having buckled under China’s pressure by releasing the Chinese fishing trawler captain. But the Japanese action helps move the spotlight back to China, whose rapidly accumulating power has emboldened it to aggressively assert territorial and maritime claims against its neighbours, stretching from Japan to India.
With its defence spending having grown almost twice as fast as its GDP, China is beginning to take the gloves off, confident that it has acquired the necessary muscle. While the Chinese leadership may gloat over its success in forcing Tokyo to climb down and release the captain, the episode — far from shifting the Asian balance of power in Beijing’s favour — has only shown that China is at the centre of Asia’s political divides.
China’s new stridency in its territorial and maritime disputes with its neighbours has helped highlight Asia’s central challenge to come to terms with existing boundaries by getting rid of the baggage of history that weighs down a number of interstate relationships. Even as Asia is becoming more interdependent economically, it is getting more divided politically.
While the bloody wars in the first half of the 20th century have made war unthinkable today in Europe, the wars in Asia in the second half of the 20th century did not resolve matters and have only accentuated bitter rivalries. A number of interstate wars were fought in Asia since 1950, the year both the Korean War and the annexation of Tibet started. Those wars, far from settling or ending disputes, have only kept disputes lingering.
China, significantly, has been involved in the largest number of military conflicts. A recent Pentagon report has cited examples of how China carried out military pre-emption in 1950, 1962, 1969 and 1979 in the name of strategic defence. The report states: “The history of modern Chinese warfare provides numerous case studies in which China’s leaders have claimed military pre-emption as a strategically defensive act. For example, China refers to its intervention in the Korean War (1950-1953) as the ‘War to Resist the United States and Aid Korea.’ Similarly, authoritative texts refer to border conflicts against India (1962), the Soviet Union (1969), and Vietnam (1979) as ‘Self-Defence Counter Attacks’.” The seizure of Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974 by Chinese forces was another example of offense as defence.
All these cases of pre-emption occurred when China was weak, poor and internally torn. So today, China’s growing power naturally raises legitimate concerns.
A stronger, most prosperous China is already beginning to pursue a more muscular foreign policy vis-à-vis its neighbours, as underlined by several developments this year alone — from its inclusion of the South China Sea in its “core” national interests, an action that makes its claims to the disputed Spratly Islands non-negotiable, to its presentation of the Yellow Sea as some sort of an exclusive Chinese military-operations zone where it wants the US and South Korea, unlike in the past, not to hold joint naval exercises. China also has become more insistent in pressing its territorial claims to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, with Chinese warships making more frequent forays into Japanese waters.
As if to signal that it is acquiring the military power to enforce its claims, China has since April conducted large-scale naval exercises, first near Japan’s Ryukyu Islands chain — with a Chinese helicopter buzzing a Japanese destroyer — then in the East China Sea and, most recently, in the Yellow Sea.
In Tibet, the official PLA Daily has reported several new significant military developments in recent months, including the first-ever major parachute exercise to demonstrate a capability to rapidly insert troops on the world’s highest plateau and an exercise involving “third generation” fighter-jets carrying live ammunition. In addition, the railroad to Tibet, the world’s highest elevated railway, has now started being used to supply “combat readiness materials for the Air Force” there. These military developments have to be seen in the context of China’s resurrection since 2006 of its long-dormant claim to India’s northeastern Arunachal Pradesh state and its recent attempts to question Indian sovereignty over the state of Jammu and Kashmir, one-fifth of which it occupies.
Against that background, China’s increasingly assertive territorial and maritime claims threaten Asian peace and stability. In fact, the largest real estate China covets is not in the South or East China Seas but in India: Arunachal Pradesh is almost three times larger than Taiwan.
Respect for boundaries is a prerequisite to peace and stability on any continent. Europe has built its peace on that principle, with a number of European states learning to live with boundaries they do not like.
Efforts at the redrawing of territorial and maritime frontiers are an invitation to endemic conflicts in Asia. Through its overt refusal to accept the territorial status quo, Beijing only highlights the futility of political negotiations. After all, a major redrawing of frontiers has never happened at the negotiating table in world history. Such redrawing can only be achieved on the battlefield, as Beijing has done in the past.
Today, whether it is Arunachal Pradesh or Taiwan or the Senkaku Islands, or even the Spratlys, China is dangling the threat to use force to assert its claims. In doing so, China has helped reinforce the spectre of a China threat. By picking territorial fights with its neighbours, China also is threatening Asia’s continued economic renaissance. More significantly, China is showing that it is not a credible candidate to lead Asia.
It is important for other Asian states and the rest of the international community to convey a clear message to Beijing: After six long decades, China’s redrawing of frontiers must now come to an end.

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